Ash Wednesday, and the FDNY Fire Academy

Elise Ashley Hanley
Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018
Mark 1:21-28
Trinity on the Green

I have one brother named Tom. While we are not that close in age (he is 7 years younger than me) – nor are we that close in height (he is six foot 4)…we have luckily always been close as friends – perhaps due to that age difference, or just to an upbringing that demanded we look out for each other.

I am very proud of the fact that my brother Tom is now a probationary New York City firefighter – also known as a probie.

(I like to think that maybe I had some good influence on him, as I used to force him to watch the TV show Rescue 911 with me back when we were kids). 

We both have had long journeys to achieve our vocations, and we have both supported each other through the thick and the thin. Tom is currently half-way through the FDNY’s Fire Academy, a truly grueling 18 week paramilitary program, that has required him to train hard in the cold, the snow, and in the ash.

It is a story he told me of an experience in the Fire Academy, that made me reflect on what we are doing here on Ash Wednesday.

On a freezing cold and windy day back in late December, Tom and his fellow probies had to go into a training fire without an air mask and cylinder. Without any Oxygen. Basically, they had to experience smoke inhalation. Tom has repeatedly told me that it has been the hardest thing they’ve had to do. He said he felt like he might die for a solid minute. The instructors were burning wood and hay. He said that he could barely see the person standing next to him, the air was that thick. The room was filled with ash and smoke.

The instructors were monitoring the air, however. They truly weren’t out to kill anyone! They told the probies that there was enough oxygen in the room for them to survive – they were not going to die. But the exercise required trust – not only of the instructors, but of each other. The instructors were trying to teach the probie firefighters how smoke layers – that there is always more breathable air towards the floor. (that’s why we are advised to drop and crawl in the event of a fire and smoke) And for added anxiety, the probies were required to answer quiz questions while they were struggling to breathe: one would have to stand up into the thicker smoke to answer the question, and if they got it wrong, everyone would have to stand until they got it right.

Torture? Maybe. Insane? Maybe.

The instructors acknowledged how painful an exercise it was, but that they had to do it. It would have been irresponsible of them to let Tom and his colleagues graduate without taking “a feed of smoke.” They were trying to make them think under pressure, in irritating smoke and heat. They were also trying to ready them for when they just might be in a fire without adequate air. They wanted to ready them to face something terrible, so that when they finally face a fire that is out of their control, they will better know how to respond. They likely won’t panic as much, if at all, because they have been through it before. When we rehearse for a bad situation, we are better prepared to face it when it occurs.

Today, we too are rehearsing. We too are being prepared. When ash is placed on our foreheads with the words, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we are reminded that we will all die. Every single one of us. We too are being readied to face difficult situations and circumstances. We are reminded that are bodies are temporary, and our earthly lives are fleeting.

We ready ourselves during Lent for Jesus’ death and resurrection. We follow the example of Jesus, who rehearsed and readied himself for his own ministry, suffering, and death by 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert.

So, let us catch our breath.

Let us prepare to follow Jesus to the cross. Remember that we are dust, but God makes beautiful things out of that dust. Our Christian hope is that we too can share eternal life with Jesus when our earthly lives come to an end.

It is time to rehearse and prepare again and again for when that time comes.

Are you ready?

 

Jesus is the Authority, and He Authorizes Us!

Elise Ashley Hanley
4 Epiphany, Year B, 28 January 2018
Mark 1:21-28
Trinity on the Green

“Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority…”1

And in case we missed it –  we hear again just 5 lines later:

“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’2

One of the many, many challenges of living in our current times, can be knowing who or what to treat and trust as authority – for the sake of this sermon, I am speaking primarily about the news, or what might be considered by some as “fake news,” or by others as “propaganda,” coming at us from all and various sides. Fake news is, of course, nothing new – but it seems different in our time.

I am really speaking of the cacophony of voices we hear, especially if we spend time on the internet, especially on social media, or on cable news. These days, it seems anyone can get their message out – we can each have our own soapbox! – and that can be great. Almost anyone, including non-humans – cats, dogs, and hippos  – all God’s creatures can have their own blog, website, Twitter or Facebook account, a platform where they can say just about ANYTHING. Thank God for free speech… and free meows? Free barks? I’m not sure what sound hippos make…

Truly, I am for free speech – there are so many good things about being able to say almost anything, but we all know that the good comes with the awful. It is quite problematic when we hear speech that harms and wounds or even kills: especially when other people regard those voices as their authority.

So, who has authority these days? Who teaches with authority? Who do we uphold as our authority?

What kind of authority figures have we had in our lives? What convinced us of their authority?  Was it just because we were told they were so that we HAD to respect them? Or was it a parent, a teacher, a religious leader, a favorite newscaster, or even a politician, who seemed better or more knowledgeable, or more trustworthy?  What was it about them that was striking, or different, or refreshing? Perhaps some of us have always been wary of authority? Perhaps burned by trusting authority figures, or mistreated, that we don’t trust anyone. How are we authority figures in our lives? In our families, or in our jobs? How have we tried to earn our authority? How have we used it, or misused it?

I often double check authority, especially on the internet. I’ve always prided myself on being a fact checker. I try to not always take everything I see or read at face value, and to be curious. I have long been a user of Snopes.com – you may be too. Snopes prides itself on being “the definitive fact-checking and Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.” They have been one of my go-to internet authority checkers. Lately, I find myself using it multiple times a day.  Being a citizen on the internet these days can be really tiring, and often upsetting. While I try to follow the advice “NEVER read the comments,” on posts or articles, sometimes I do, and sometimes they are fine, but it seems all the more often that I see people being unnecessarily malicious to one another. Many people want to prove that they are an authority – that they know the way, or that their opinion or life experience is the only way: that they are not open to developing, or learning from others that are different from them.

Over this weekend, I saw two of my Episcopal clergy colleagues rip each other to pieces on Facebook. These are two women priests who I highly respect! Or, rather, I did. Their shouting match back and forth on what started as a posted opinion about Ash Wednesday was ultimately over their own perceived sense of authority, and was ultimately, I felt, rather shameful.

So, again I ask: amidst the cacophony of so many voices, whom can we trust?

We gathered here may disagree about many things. And that is ok! Disagreement, real live conversation and debate are healthy, and I would encourage we all participate! But I hope we can all agree on one authority figure.

JESUS.

Our Gospel today reminds us repeatedly that Jesus is the authority. He was then, and he is now. Those in attendance at the synagogue recognized it in Jesus’ teaching.  Jesus must have been a pretty great preacher. He must have had incredible communication skills. Jesus first shows his authority by the way he speaks, by the way he teaches and preaches. He must have seemed radical and new, because he astounded the people in his hearing. And the unclean spirit knows Jesus, and knows Jesus’ authority. The unclean spirit recognizes Jesus as the Holy One of God. The unclean spirit knows that Jesus is there to destroy evil, which he then does.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus ultimately shows his authority by what he DOES. In our passage today, Jesus performs his first miracle of healing in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus silences the unclean spirit before it can say anything else, and he orders it out of the man. If the folks at the synagogue weren’t already impressed by Jesus, now they must have been really wowed.  Jesus commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him.

Ultimately, Jesus sees a man who is suffering greatly, in need of his help. Jesus speaks a healing word, and it shakes everything up. It causes the evil spirit to come out of the convulsing man. Jesus heals this man, and then continues to go on and heal many others. And the news about Jesus begins to spread around Galilee.

So, Jesus has the authority! The power of Jesus, the power of God, will ultimately conquer even death! And yet, Jesus doesn’t go on and on about how great he is. He doesn’t use his authority to obtain wealth, or fame, or prestige. He uses it to serve others. He uses it to help others. As he says to the disciples later in the Gospel of Mark, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Ultimately, Jesus has come to bring about God’s kingdom, God’s community – Jesus has come to heal and to save – and to transform all who encounter him.

Jesus is our authority, he also authorizes us to follow his example of servant leadership. Jesus authorizes us to follow him – to teach and preach about his works of love and grace. Jesus also authorizes us to continue to love and to heal in his name – to work for justice and peace in our world. To rebuke evil when we encounter it, to resist it in all forms – even to trample it!

So, my friends: (let it not get to our heads, but) we are all authorized! How will this community continue to love and heal in the name of Jesus? How will each of us be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world?

AMEN.

______
1  Mark 1:22
2 Mark 1:27
3
Mark 10:45

 

The Magi in Peru

Elise Ashley Hanley
The Feast of the Epiphany, transferred
7 January 2018
Matthew 1:1-12
Trinity on the Green

As some of you may know, my spouse, Chris and I have just returned from a journey to Peru. Our reason for going was for the celebration the marriage of his only sibling. His sister moved to Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, 3 years ago, and last May, she married a Peruvian man in a civil ceremony- one whom no one in the family nor in her group of friends had yet met, until last week.

Going on this journey, I often thought of the Magi, or the Wise Ones. I did question just how wise we were being – we were to be traveling for many hours immediately after Christmas, already exhausted and both ill with sinus infections. We were also traveling to Cusco during its off-season – the rainy season – and yes, that is an accurate description. Cusco is also over 11,000 feet above sea level, and many people suffer from altitude sickness for their first few days there. We were arriving less than 24 hours before the wedding celebration. Was any of this wise?

It didn’t matter, for we had to go, we so wanted to go. We so wanted to be present for the wedding celebration, to meet her new husband and his family. To see where she was living, more than 3000 miles away from us. To try to understand what about the city, its culture, and people had lured her away and kept her there. And like the Wise Ones, we wanted to show up – and pay homage, show our respect and love, with gifts. And, after all, as a bonus, we’d get to go to Machu Picchu – the ancient, Incan citadel located high in the Andes – how could two we resist?

Like the Wise Ones, we also wanted revelation. Neither of us had been to South America before. We wanted to understand people and cultures and ideas that were different.  We wanted to understand Chris’ sister’s choice, to move so far away from family and friends. And, if nothing else, perhaps we too could have a high spiritual moment, high up in the Andes. We were excited, in this season of Christmastide, to meet God in new and different people and places.

As it turns out, altitude sickness is real – we both almost fainted just off the plane!  Another effect of the altitude was that we were exhausted for days. But like the Wise Ones, we had taken a chance. Like the Wise Ones, we sought guidance along the way – often because our Spanish was so limited.  And ultimately, we also relied, like the Wise Ones, on what we could sense and discern for our travel, for our lives and relationships, and for what our future choices might be.

Who were the Magi? Traditionally, one of three answers has been given.

  1. They may have been magicians, or Zorastrians, who practiced divination or enchantment.
  2. They may have been Court priests, serving the rulers of Persia, in what is present-day Iran. At least one scholar argues that as such, they may have been part of a rebellion that attempted to end the rule of cruel and arbitrary rulers, which would give their presence in this story overtones of subversion and change. Salt to taste.
  3. Or – they were astrologers – star gazers and star studiers – who interpreted the heavens, and told leaders of their meaning. As such, they could pay a heavy price if their message was not what their rulers wanted.1

As much as we have grown accustomed to “We Three Kings,” no number is mentioned. And the names Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India, is an Armenian tradition: they are not listed in our Biblical account.

Whoever they were exactly they were likely quite learned. And they were seekers. They were risk takers. And they wanted to see and experience God in Jesus.

The Wise Ones likely lived a disciplined life of study to know and understand the coming of the messiah. Our text does not specify the number of them, nor their gender identity. Their traveling party could have been quite large and diverse – I’d like to imagine it was so. They traveled quite a long distance, and they brought costly and symbolic gifts that would have been standard to offer a king: gold to represent Christ’s majesty, frankincense as perfume, and myrrh, an anointing oil used in the preparation for burial, foreshadowing his premature death. I imagine the arrival of these ornamented, well-to-do out-of-towners in Bethlehem, coming to learn about some poor, local kid, may have been as exciting and questionable as our arrival as wealthy and fussy white American tourists in a developing country.

As it is the New Year, it is a common time for resolutions, a time to examine our lives and make decisions about how we may want to change or grow.

What star are we following? What different star might each of us need to follow this year? What will help all of us to ultimately journey to Jesus? Now is a good time to become disciplined and discerning like those Wise Ones – to find a new practice or habit and try it. Maybe the Daily Office, or other daily prayer will help you. Maybe it’s more exercise, yoga, or sleep. Maybe it is an overdue journey to see a loved one. Maybe it is a religious or spiritual pilgrimage. How is God still speaking to each of us? Because God is!

And those Wise Ones – they went home by another road. They resisted the King. I often wonder if they eventually got caught somehow. What or who might we need to resist? What might we need to say a loud and solid “no” to, even if our lives or our relationships depend on it?

We left Peru, and went home by another way, and we are so glad to be back home here at Trinity and in New Haven. In this new year, may we all recharge ourselves. May we strengthen ourselves and each other in our mission to learn, grow, serve, and love our neighbors as ourselves. May we try to be as wise, disciplined, discerning, and generous as the Magi.

(And finally, one last bit of guidance: if you travel to Peru, don’t go in the rainy season.)

AMEN.

________

1 See Feasting on the Word – Exegetical Perspective by William R. Herzogg II for Epiphany, Year B.

 

 

Christmas Day Homily, 2017

Elise Ashley Hanley
Christmas Day 2017
John 1:1:1-14
Trinity on the Green

Happy Christmas, everyone!

You might be surprised to NOT find the story of Jesus’ birth in our readings this morning. There’s no story of Mary and Joseph and angels, or shepherds. There’s no talk of no room at the inn, or a babe in a manger. Instead, the Gospel of John begins at the beginning – the beginning of time. Long before the birth we celebrate today, Jesus, the Word, was with God – and Jesus was God. All things came into being through Jesus – and without Jesus, not one thing came into being. The poetic language of the text may be a little off putting at first – in fact, some scholars think that this prologue of John’s Gospel was written as a hymn to sing –  but our Gospel message reminds us of the cosmic Christ – the Word of God who was always there, and who then became a flesh and blood human to live among us. On Christmas, we celebrate not just Jesus the baby, or just Jesus the man who died for us, but Jesus, as  the essential word of God; Jesus Christ, the personal wisdom and power in union with God, God’s minister in creation and government of the universe. Jesus who always was and always is, and is to come.1 God sent Jesus into the world to save us by becoming just like any of us, a human being: a human being to be our friend, role model, and saviour.

If I could describe this Gospel passage with just one word, I think I would say that it is mysterious. How does God become human while still being divine? And why must it be that the divine must become human, in order for us humans to be bound to God? Christmas is ultimately a great mystery.

Now, as much as I wish I were Nancy Drew or Columbo, I’m not here to solve any mysteries today. We don’t have many if any hard facts on how Christmas happened exactly. What we have are stories, passed down through the generations, written and translated again and again. Somehow, over 2000 year is later, we still tell this story.  We still continue these traditions.

Today, we celebrate that God did not remain aloof and removed from us. Instead, God sent Emmanuel – God with us. God IS with us. And God loves us, no matter what. I invite you on this Christmas Day to revel in the mystery of God’s love, in the mystery of the incarnation. Let us  continue to tell the story of Jesus – the Word made flesh. I wish you all a blessed Christmas.

Amen.

_______

1 drawn from class notes with Dr. Deirdre Good, The General Theological Seminary.

 

Choosing Joy – Advent 3, Year B

Elise Ashley Hanley
Advent 3, Year B, 16 December 2017
John 1:6-8,19-28
Trinity on the Green

Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, is also known as Gaudete Sunday – the Latin, “Gaudete,” meaning, “REJOICE!” Today, we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath; some of our sister churches even get decked out in pink or rose colored vestments, and we are reminded by the command in today’s Epistle reading to “Rejoice –  always!”

For some of us, that might be easier said than done, even or especially during this time of year.

I remember as a child, the Third Sunday of Advent was an important marker for me.  I couldn’t wait to light that pink candle. This was both because, as a little girl, I LOVED the color pink, but also, because once we lit it, it meant that Christmas was really soon! It meant that we were more than halfway there! I rejoiced with a child’s sweet impatience and anticipation of all the wonders of Christmas.

Now, as an adult, I light that pink candle – and I panic, because it means that Christmas is really soon! This year, it seems even sooner, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent IS Christmas Eve! That pink candle makes me pause, and question my preparedness – not only around shopping or decorating, but as a priest and spiritual leader: have I slowed down enough this Advent? Have I made enough time for extra prayer and reflection?  Have I truly prepared enough for Christ’s coming into my heart and life? (Have I posted that daily “hashtag” Advent Word on Social Media?)  Have I done all that has been expected of me, and all that I have told others is expected of them?

The answer to these questions most years, including this year, is NO. Life gets in the way. Consumerism throws us off track. Unexpected illness or death causes us to lament and disconnect. The end of the year requires final exams from students, grading from teachers, end of year fundraising and sales from and for non-profits. Instead of being still and reflective, the pace of life often seems to accelerate from the First Sunday of Advent on.

But today is Gaudete Sunday – today we called to rejoice. At one time, Advent was observed more like Lent – it was a penitential season, and there was a strictness to observing the liturgy, like no organ playing allowed. Gaudete Sunday was the break in between – a chance to break one’s fast, to play the organ, and to focus on the joy in the nearness of Jesus’ return.

Wherever you are today in your Advent journey – even if you don’t feel like you’ve been on one – I invite you to pause with me, and rejoice. Rejoice, even though everything might not be accomplished, rejoice, even though everything might not be fine. It’s ok if everything isn’t done and wrapped with a bow.  Henri Nouwen writes that:

“Joy is not the same as happiness.  We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong… to God…Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.”1

We are promised God’s grace and mercy to help and deliver us. We are promised Jesus, in just one week from today! Let us choose joy. Let us rejoice.

Amen.

_______

1 from  The Heart of Henri Nouwen: His Words of Blessing.

 

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, 2017

Elise Ashley Hanley
All Saints Sunday, Year A, 5 November 2017
Matthew 5:1-12
Trinity on the Green, New Haven, CT.

Have you ever experienced a thin place?

A thin place is what is described as a location where the distance between Heaven and Earth lessens – or thins – where the present world, and the world hereafter meet. One writer, who experienced such a thin place, described it as “a place… where, for a few blissful moments I loosen my death grip on life, and can breathe again.”1  A concept that is often first attributed to the Pagan Celts, and then Christianized over time, the saying goes that “Heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places, that distance is even shorter.”

I first experienced a thin place while leading a church group on a so-called mission trip to rural upstate New York, where we helped with repairs and rebuilding after Hurricane Irene. We stayed at a rundown retreat center in the woods. One night, we had a campfire, and with it the usual scary stories and s’mores. I decided to head back to my room a little early. By myself, I headed back through the through the dark and smoky woods, only lit by the moon and stars, and suddenly  – it hit me.  I was overcome with the feeling that I had stepped through an invisible portal – that the mortal world had collided with Heaven. While absolutely not under the influence of anything except fresh air and a week of hard work – suddenly, I felt an incredible closeness with God. I felt an incredible closeness with my father, who was long dead. My grandfather, my grandmother – all long gone. It overwhelmed me so that I started to weep, but with a sense of joy – and as quickly as it started, it went away. Thin places are often liminal.

Have you ever experienced such a thin place?

It could be at a beach, a bookstore, a monastery, or even an airport.

I believe in these. I believe we can have such experiences, in which we can experience a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven – in which we can feel connection to our ancestors, all the saints – and in which we realize that we are truly knit together in one Communion and Fellowship of the mystical body of Jesus Christ.

Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Crafton has written a book called The Also Life. In it, she describes this earthly life as living in a small basket. Our small basket, however, is resting inside a much larger basket – that is the Kingdom of Heaven. We like living in our small basket, and yet, now and then, we can just barely peek through the spaces between the strips of the woven basket, and when we peek, we can just catch a glimpse of the larger basket – of God’s greater realm. According to Crafton: it has and is always around us.

Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day have been known throughout the centuries as Hallowed Days – a holy and liminal time, when crossing between this world and the otherworld is thought to be easier: a thin space. It is a time when Christians throughout the world practice such customs as remembering and praying for the spiritual journeys of those who have died, by visiting cemeteries and cleaning or decorating gravesites, and even providing hospitality for the return of deceased loved ones with food and drink. And indeed, I believe it is a time when we can peek – and perhaps see or experience the Kingdom of Heaven in a new and surprising way.

On this Feast of All Saints transferred, we continued to observe this Hallowed time – this morning, we remember all the Saints –  the word ‘saints’ being used to describe the entire membership of the Christian community, past, present, and yet to come. We will receive a new saint today at the 11:00 service, as we baptize a new member into the Church. In our Baptismal Covenant we, along with traditional Christians around the globe, profess the words: “I believe in… the communion of saints, … the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” We recognize and celebrate our belonging to a Holy Community – we welcome a new member into it through Baptism – and we honor all Holy Ones, those known and unknown.

Our Gospel for All Saints Day is the Beatitudes – likely so familiar to many of us, the Beatitudes also offer us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven, and what we need to do right now. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, and he speaks it in the tradition of a Jewish rabbi who would be expected to offer commentary on the Law, to explain to people how to stay faithful to God’s covenant.

Even as familiar as I am with the Beatitudes, I still find them surprising. They are not easy ways to live and be. For example, I do not want to be reviled or persecuted! I don’t want to mourn!

And yet, I have been reviled. I have mourned. These experiences will no doubt occur again. Being meek does not mean being submissive or wimpy, but means rather means having disciplined compassion. These tasks are difficult – we need help with all of these things! I need help and comfort when I am reviled, and when I mourn, I need help and guidance when I am not being meek, or being a peacemaker, or being merciful – etc. I need others to help me practice living by the Beatitudes. These practices are work for all the saints – all who have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I depend on you, my fellow saints, to hold me accountable to the Beatitudes, and to forgive me when I mess up. Likewise, we all depend on each other. And we all depend on God – as our Baptismal Covenant also reminds us – we can only act with God’s help. This is the holy work of our Holy Community.

The Beatitudes also provide us with a glimpse of how the world will be at the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven – they remind us that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven can already be felt and seen. It may be a struggle to live a Christian life, but we have the witness of those saints who have gone before us, providing us examples of living life faithfully, loving and honoring each other. And we are assured of God’s promises – that we should be called children of God.

Have you ever experienced a thin place, where heaven and earth meet?

Together, we stand at that portal:  the Kingdom of Heaven is near – it is both already, and not yet.

AMEN.

________

1  Eric Weiner, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” New York Times, March 9, 2012, accessed November 4, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html.

Sermon for Giving Sunday (Stewardship Sunday)

Elise Ashley Hanley
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A, 22 October 2017
Matthew 22:15-22
Trinity on the Green, New Haven, CT.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I find it a difficult lesson to keep learning and relearning in life: that of being prepared to give things back – to return things to whom or whence they belong when it is time.

It starts when we are very small children – little ones don’t yet understand sharing, and may cry and scream, and refuse to give back the toy they’ve been playing with that belongs to another child! Throughout our development as children into adults, we continue to learn how to give things back when we are done with them – and returning things can entail a sense of loss, even when we are just returning our library books, or giving away hand-me-down clothes that no longer fit us. It can continue to hurt when we learn how to pay back our student loans and our credit card debt. We also begin to learn to return those we’ve loved, and that comes with feelings of sadness and loss: perhaps as a child you gathered with your family around the toilet to flush away a beloved goldfish, or put a dearly departed hamster in a shoebox to bury in the garden. At some point, we likely gathered around a beloved person who had died, to see about returning that person into the ground – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – returning him or her to God.

Ultimately, even as adults, it is much easier to hold on to everything we are given – to clutch it with all our might. Sometimes, it seems the more that has been taken away from us, the more likely we are to hold onto what we have: to file and save it, to put it in storage, or even hoard it! Sometimes, we grow so accustomed to having all that we have, that we start to believe that it will stay with us forever, and then we are even more shocked and devastated when it is snatched away, pulled out from under us. I bet we can all think of the first great loss we experienced in our lives – one that shook us to our core, and taught us to never take anything for granted in life. Despite this loss, and even countless others, we may still have found ways to move on, and once again become accustomed to having things “our way” again – to take things for granted once again. The shock of losing a job, a home, a relationship, or a loved one always reminds us that nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever – not even Styrofoam.

Loss or near-loss can begin to change us, by teaching us a new way to live: to live life in such a way that we don’t take what we are given for granted. To live in gratitude, day by day, moment by moment. To begin each prayer and petition to God with “thank you.” Thank you. To slow down, and to savor what we have – to delight in loving someone. To relish the moments when our child is young, or when our dog is still a puppy. To appreciate the good experiences we have, while we still have them: good health, no aches and pains yet, our elderly grandparent or parent still active and alive. To care fully and deeply for what and who we have. And then – we need to live fully knowing that what God has given us, we will ultimately give back to God. That is living a life of stewardship: a way to live in love, faith, preparation, and gratitude. And we are to practice that now. On this Giving Sunday, that is what we are to practice.

In our Gospel today, the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians go to Jesus to ask him a loaded question, and to trap him in his answering of it. The Pharisees would have opposed the Roman government, and the Herodians would have supported it. The Herodians would have supported paying the tax to Caesar, while the Pharisees, who were committed to following Jewish Law, would have opposed it for religious reasons – having a coin that carried the image of the “divine Caesar” broke the first and second commandments – it was an abomination.

Despite their differences, the Pharisees and the Herodians have colluded! They have come together to trap Jesus, and to drive him out. So, they ask him this loaded question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The Pharisees hoped that Jesus would say that it was, so that the colonized Jewish people would see Jesus as a Roman sympathizer. The Herodians hoped that Jesus would say that it was not lawful, so that they could accuse him of treason against Rome.

Instead, Jesus’ answer left them amazed.

Jesus shows them the coin with the emperor’s head on it and says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus suggests that his followers have dual obligations to the teachings of God, but also to the systems and governments in which they live. Jesus allows room for loyalty to the empire, but subordinates it – he makes it secondary to loyalty to God. One may give to the empire its due, but only if it does not conflict with what is due to God, because ultimately: everything belongs to God, the creator of heaven and earth – of all things seen and unseen. And after all – the coin belonged to Caesar – it was marked as such! So, return it – give it back.

We all belong to God. Our lives belong to God. As a coin may bear the image of the emperor or the government, but we are made in God’s image – we bear God’s image. I cannot tell you to pay or not pay your taxes today – I leave that decision to each of you as informed and intelligent citizens! But I urge you to practice giving back to God. I urge you to practice living a life of love, care, preparation and gratitude. When we fully come to understand that nothing belongs to us, that everything is on borrowed time from God, it can become just slightly easier – albeit still painful – to give things back when they are due: knowing that ultimately, we can’t take anything with us – knowing that ultimately, we will give our own selves back to God.

We practice that every Sunday when we come to the Table. We give of our time, and our talent, and of our treasure into the offering plate. And as it is in the Rite 1 Eucharistic Prayer, we pray that we may “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”1

By living a life of generosity and preparation – by giving back to God what is God’s, we live a life of love, knowing that we are all one body in Christ, and that in the fullness of time, all earthly things will pass away, yet we will all be united together through Christ in everlasting life.

AMEN.


1 The Book of Common Prayer 1982, page 336.

 

Jesus, the Canaanite Woman, and Us.

A sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green, New Haven, CT, on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15, Year A – Matthew 15:10-28.

“Woman, great is your faith.”

For those of you who don’t know – Trinity, along with other Episcopal churches, as well as some churches of some other denominations, follow the Revised Common Lectionary. The Lectionary is a three year cycle of readings from Scripture, appointed to be read in worship. The Common Lectionary  was first published in 1983, the result of an ecumenical project of several American and Canadian denominations. The Revised Common Lectionary was published in 1992, and officially adopted by The Episcopal Church in 2006. It is a three-year cycle of Sunday Eucharistic readings in which Matthew, Mark, and Luke are read in successive years, with some material from John thrown in each year. We are currently chugging along on Year A, and we have been hearing Matthew’s Gospel. In other words, we don’t get to choose what readings we get to preach on. Some Sundays, we preachers wonder why, oh why, must the readings appointed today be used. Some other Sundays, like TODAY – I think that our readings couldn’t have come at a better time.

The events of last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, were truly beyond terrifying and vicious. Honestly, my own words cannot quite capture what I felt and thought. The language and symbols used by the marching white supremacists made many of us wonder, “is this truly America in 2017?” Meanwhile, it made others say, “yes: of course this is America in 2017 – have you not noticed?”

Since then, many public leaders, including religious leaders, have spoken out, naming the great evil – the great sin – of racism. Dean Hollerith of the Episcopal Church’s National Cathedral named it well when he said:  “For too long, too many Americans have falsely believed that the evil of racism is largely a thing of the past. We have failed to take seriously the cancer of white supremacy that lurks beneath the surface of our collective life…The tragic events in Charlottesville, and the hatred that fueled them, grieve the heart of God.”

The heart of God is grieving this week.

In the wake of these events, you may have asked yourself, what can I do? Especially if one is a white person of some privilege, like me, you may have asked yourself, what should I do? What must I do?  How can I repent of the racism and white supremacy that exists in our country? What can we do to not only stand by but stand up for our kin who are people of color, or Jewish?

(Well, I  hate to tell you, friends – it will require more than just eating cake…)

And this leads us to a collective, or communal question: how can we acknowledge the role the greater Church has played in systemic racism? How can the Church repent?

Jesus provides us an example in today’s gospel. For today, the lectionary has chosen to show us, in the words of our collect, Jesus, as an example of a godly life – so we can follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.

There’s just one small issue:

Jesus doesn’t seem to act so godly!!!

Sure, Jesus first reminds his listeners that it is what comes out of us, not what goes into us, that can harm and defile the world. Our careless words and jokes, our lies, and our actions have the power to harm greatly. And as one writer says, “the pain of those choices is not washed down the sewer like yesterday’s lunch.”* The pain we can cause by one careless word or action, or one premeditated word or action, can last a lifetime.

BUT THEN –  Jesus’ behavior with the Canaanite woman is shocking. Where is Jesus’ compassion? Where is his all-inclusive love? Here is a mother, who begs for mercy for her daughter, who is tormented by a demon. This mother is a minority woman – an outsider. She is an outsider because of her gender, her ethnicity, her culture, and her religion. Social norms of Jesus’ day are for her to be silent. Yet she isn’t.  She respectfully calls Jesus “Lord,” and she begs for God’s mercy.

And Jesus does not answer. Jesus is silent in the face of an injustice. Jesus is silent in the face of great suffering.

Even worse, his disciples ask Jesus to send her away – given the context, they likely would have said, “Jesus! This woman’s offensive! She keeps shouting at us! She doesn’t know her place! Tell her to shut up and go away!”

Jesus finally answers this woman, and he tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, he is not to help the likes of her. Again, she begs of him – “Lord, help me.”

And Jesus calls her a dog.

Jesus utterly dehumanizes this woman, who is kneeling before him, begging for her daughter to be healed. Calling a Canaanite a dog was a familiar insult of the Israelites of Jesus’ time. Perhaps each of us can think of insults that we have heard, that could be the modern day equivalent – something we’ve heard used, or used ourselves, or something that’s been used against us.

If this bothers you? It should. I am not going to try to soften it, or explain it. Jesus utterly disappoints me in this moment. Jesus hurts my heart with his behavior. Even if Jesus were being, say,  tongue in cheek… even if Jesus was just following cultural and societal norms of his time… Even though I know that Jesus is both divine and HUMAN…this passage crushes me every time I read it.

So it’s a good thing I wasn’t that woman, because I may have slumped away crying. But no – not this unnamed Canaanite woman. She doesn’t give up. She doesn’t slump away. She violates societal boundaries, because she believes that she and her daughter deserve God’s mercy. So – she persisted!

Jesus has said to her: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” And she replies, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

In this interaction, Jesus is forced to confront his own prejudice – his own bias. In this interaction, there is a reversal of roles: the great teacher learns from this ostracized, minority woman. This woman understand that God’s mercy is great – that it doesn’t end with Israel, that it overflows to all the nations and peoples of Creation. She has an unshakable conviction that she deserves God’s mercy – that her daughter deserves God’s mercy.

So then, Jesus returns to being the Jesus that I’d prefer him to be. He says to her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

So, what are we to learn? In my opinion, Jesus messed up when he was confronted with something and someone he didn’t understand. But he was able to learn from the experience, and to change. We are to learn by this example of Jesus, that we too are to learn from those who are ostracized, from those that we have ostracized. This lesson can be broadly received, but I hope it can be especially useful to those of us who are white. We need to learn from our kin of color. We need to learn from those who have been disempowered. Sometimes it is indeed quite right for us to say nothing, for it is what comes out of us that defiles – and instead listen. We can listen today – we can do it here in this sanctuary, or out on the Green. We can listen via social media – Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and articles.  We can listen to colleagues, neighbors, and others around us. And then we can let them lead in the way this Canaanite woman did – and then follow.

May we all follow daily in the blessed steps of Jesus. And as a church community, may we choose to be present to each other, and to positive change as it happens – may we always choose faith over fear.

This sermon needs to end here, but the conversation doesn’t. I look forward to continuing it with you.

AMEN.

 

*credit to Iwan Russell-Jones for this quote, in David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting On the Word, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, ©2008-2011), 357.

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Good Shepherd Sunday, and the Vicar of Dibley – an introductory sermon

A sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green, New Haven, CT, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A – Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10.

‘Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep…’”

In this chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus uses two figures of speech to describe himself: Jesus is both the shepherd, and the gate. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. I think we can all get behind that? Our appointed psalm for today is the much loved 23rd Psalm. I’m sure many of us have certain associations with it and with this bucolic image.  

There are many wonderful musical settings of the 23rd Psalm, but my favorite, for both musical and sentimental reasons, is the choral arrangement by Howard Goodall – better known to some as the opening theme of the BBC sitcom, The Vicar of Dibley. I watched the Vicar of Dibley with great fervor many Friday nights as a young teenager on PBS’ weekly BritCom Night. I’ll confess that I may have occasionally lied about my Friday night plans to my friends, so that they wouldn’t think I was an overly churchy nerd. Alas, I was – and I made sure to be in front of my television set every Friday at eight o’clock, to hear the clear voice of a young choir boy sing, “The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want,” beginning that week’s episode.

For anyone unfamiliar with The Vicar of Dibley – it is a British sitcom that premiered in the early 1990s, shortly after the Church of England began allowing women’s ordination. The show is set in a conservative yet eccentric English country village. When the long-time vicar dies, he is replaced with some controversy by a woman priest, named Geraldine. Not only is she a woman, but she is outgoing and funny, and at times off-color, defying everyone’s expectations of a vicar. Over the course of time, she eventually endears herself to her parishioners, while staying true to herself, and to her call to God’s people in Dibley.

I watched and loved the Vicar of Dibley, because I wanted to be like her – I felt called to be a priest – I wanted to be a sort of shepherd, a pastor to God’s people. While many other young people my age likely looked up far more glamorous TV characters, I found an unlikely example in this fictional woman vicar. I had wanted to be a priest since I was a very young child. I played mass with my dolls and stuffed animals, using grape juice boxes and flattened bits of Wonder Bread for Communion. I had memorized the Eucharistic Prayers – I knew many of the hymns by heart, WITH harmony!  I loved going to church.

There was just one issue: I was raised Roman Catholic, and I lived in a community that was very much a Catholic bubble. I had little to no idea of other ways to be. I had no idea that I, as a woman, could be called to be a pastor or priest. If I wanted a religious life, I had the one option of becoming a nun, as my own mother had briefly been. But there seemed to be no way, short of extreme and unlikely changes at the Vatican, that I could be a priest. The Vicar of Dibley was therefore a bit of fantastical and outrageous hope to me – reminding me each week amidst the humor of the show, that the Lord IS my shepherd, and that somehow, someway, he’d lead me to do and be what I was supposed to be.

Indeed, the Lord has led me, even when I’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming. Fast forward twenty some years, and I feel as if my own journey towards the priesthood could been conceived and scripted by a team of BBC Comedy Writers: God has a sense of humor! Like many things in life, my journey to ordained ministry wasn’t a straight path – there were many curves, off ramps, wrong turns, and rest stops along the way.  We call the “official” process to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church the “Discernment Process,” with a capital “D.” Lest we be fooled: all our life processes require discernment. Discernment requires careful listening. I was constantly reminded especially this past year that I always have to keep listening carefully for the Good Shepherd’s voice: for the voice of Jesus, calling me by name, leading me along to where I need to be.

There are a lot of competing voices out there. The voice of the stranger can often be lurking in what sounds or seems spiritual. It takes time and practice, as well as learning from our mistakes and from those older and wiser, to recognize and hear God’s voice within us, guiding us. The process of becoming our true selves in Christ is not easy, no matter how spiritual or religious we may be. It usually happens in God’s time, not our sense of time. It is best done with the help of our fellow sheep: with the help and support of our community. And it can only be done with God’s help.

Jesus also says, “I am the gate.”

We may initially think of a gate as something that closes off and separates, as a barrier. A gate may be used for confinement, or for controlling passage. We can close the gate to be exclusive, to protect those “on the inside,” from “those on the outside.”

Jesus is the open gate: Jesus is our way of liberation.

The gate by which the sheep can go through to find pasture expresses how Jesus brings God’s saving love and grace to all. As both shepherd and gate, Jesus provides for us. Jesus does not confine us, Jesus frees us. Jesus as the gate is the gate that opens for us, even when we are that sheep who totally wandered off and got lost from the flock and the shepherd; the sheep who has almost been stolen and killed by the thief and just barely made it back, banged up, exhausted and crying. Jesus, as the open gate, will welcome us back to the fold.

Jesus as shepherd and gate provides what we need: abundant life. Life not only as the force of God that gives us breath and being, but life in which we can have meaningful vocation and purpose, participation in a supportive community, like this one, sustaining and loving relationships, and finally – eternal life in God through Jesus. We will still face struggles in life, but we can find care and nourishment in being a part of Jesus’ flock. And Jesus, as the gate, is open to all.

I am so glad to be with you here at Trinity, and I look forward to being the church together. The Book of Acts gives us a good reminder of what that entails, and we still carry on these traditions so many centuries later. While the state of the overall church today can seem discouraging compared the church we hear about in the Book of Acts – wonders and signs, everyone being provided for, and numbers growing daily – we will continue to be the church by devoting ourselves to these four practices.

We will continue in the Apostles’ teaching: through our sermons, our educational programs, through reading together and Bible study; we will devote ourselves to fellowship – to nurturing the quality of our relationships, living out a sense of responsibility for each other, encouraging and increasing our hospitality to newcomers, and also while just having fun – at our concerts, our fairs and other events…

We will devote ourselves to the Breaking of the Bread – not only our celebration of the Eucharist, but the common meals we share together,

And finally, we will devote ourselves to the prayers – not only our prayer together in worship, but our own lives of prayer that we live out the other 6 days of the week, praying for this parish, and for each other, our families and friends, as well as our enemies.

As a community and as individuals, may we listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, to  know and trust his voice over the voice of the stranger. The way of the shepherd and the gate is the way of love and mercy. Life is not easy, but we can endure if we put our trust in Jesus, who is our help and our strength, and our companion and guide for the journey. May we know his voice, calling each of us by name, so we can follow where he leads – through the gate to freedom and to abundant life.  Amen.

A New Call

I have accepted a call to serve as Assistant Rector of Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut! I begin on Sunday, 30 April.

Chris and I have already found a new home in East Rock, and will be moving on 1 May.

I am so happy and excited and exhausted and grateful and yet I’d like to ask you to just reach on over here through the screen and pinch me, please – just to make sure I truly am conscious…

There were many times this year when I felt like I was walking through the wilderness. Thanks be to God, Chris, my family, and all my dear friends for walking beside me, and pointing me to Easter.